Why do fans ignore women’s pro sports?
The best female athletes in Boston and beyond usually play to empty stadiums with little pay and little praise. Their leagues could be as successful as men’s — but it won’t be easy.
ON A PERFECT SUMMER NIGHT for soccer, Harvard Stadium greets two women’s pro teams with unfilled rows of terraced concrete. Kickoff is moments away. The Star-Spangled Banner and starting lineups blast from the public address system, then bounce off all the hard, empty surfaces. In the second half, the home team announces official attendance as 2,714. The meager number doesn’t fill even 10 percent of the 30,323-seat stadium. Instead, with its classic Greek and Roman Circus-inspired architecture, the arena makes the small group of spectators clustered on its north side appear even smaller.
Breakers general manager Lee Billiard relays a few game-night instructions into a walkie-talkie in his English Midlands accent, then says, “You can’t name one other women’s professional team that’s got to go against the Red Sox, the Patriots, the Bruins, the Celtics.” Yes, that is the unenviable, impossible task left to the Breakers, the Boston entry in the National Women’s Soccer League. From their April home opener through their August regular season finale, the Breakers’ schedule annually overlaps with either the training camps, game days, or playoff runs of the city’s beloved men’s professional teams.
In the race for Boston sports fans’ affections and dollars and for media and sponsor attention, the men’s teams enjoy a decades-long headstart. Or, as Billiard says, “it’s a constant battle, and it’s a battle that we’re never going to win. But we can put up a good fight, and we can do better than what we’re doing right now.” As he speaks, a dozen young girls climb the massive stadium stands with moms, dads, and youth soccer coaches in tow, ready for the Breakers-Seattle Reign matchup. It’s a familiar sight, with female preteens and teenagers often the default fan for women’s professional teams.
Knowing the Breakers need to reach beyond the youth soccer market to become a viable pro team, Billiard backed the move to Harvard Stadium for the 2014 season, leaving behind the cozy confines of 2,500-seat Dilboy Stadium in Somerville. While the small venue still works for the Boston Militia, a semi-professional full-contact women’s football team, the Breakers found it cramped. With soccer fans lining up for standing-room-only tickets at Dilboy last season, Billiard hoped for an increase in attendance at Harvard Stadium and believed a breakthrough waited around the corner.
After all, sports-crazed Boston with its Big Papi-sized appetite for professional games would seem a city with fanaticism to spare. But the breakthrough didn’t happen. The team struggled on the field and in the stands. For the 2014 campaign, the 12 Breakers home games drew, on average, 2,437 fans per contest.
Although it’s been 42 years since Title IX required that federally funded schools provide girls and women with equal opportunities to compete in sports, 17 years since the WNBA played its first season, 16 years since women’s ice hockey debuted at the Winter Olympics and the United States won gold and spurred young girls’ interest in the sport, and 15 years since the US women’s national soccer team drew 90,185 fans to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena for a women’s World Cup final, widespread interest in women’s professional team sports remains frustratingly elusive. The problems that plague teams in Boston often stymie female leagues nationwide: small operating budgets; lack of exposure; ill-fitting venues; competition from live local men’s games and an ever-increasing variety of nationally televised sports contests; fans stuck on the fact that female athletes aren’t as fast, strong, or physical as their male counterparts.
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